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Kansas town rebuilds after tornado with little help from Uncle Sam

  • The Kansas City Star
  • Published Thursday, Jan. 3, 2013, at 6:29 a.m.
  • Updated Thursday, Jan. 3, 2013, at 7:10 a.m.

Dustin Kuntz’s hometown could have disappeared without many outsiders noticing.

A tornado on Feb. 28 barreled through just long enough to damage half of Harveyville’s homes, erase the Methodist church on the hill and kill a longtime resident.

Destruction arrived without warning, and in a few minutes, the twister left this community of 240 in splinters.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency said the value of property lost wasn’t enough to merit assistance.

That hurt. But the people of Harveyville knew one another too well to quit.

“We weren’t going to wait around for the president of the United States to help us,” said Kuntz, the mayor.

The rebuilding has been smoother and quicker than anyone expected. Homeless victims doubled up with neighbors, residents climbed aboard their own tractors and Bobcats and several new houses were finished within five months.

Late last year, cement was poured to reinforce the foundation of the new Harveyville United Methodist Church, rising up where its predecessor — the town’s most visible landmark — had stood since 1885.

“I’m blown away by the rapid pace of recovery,” said Jami Reever, executive director of the United Way of the Flint Hills, which coordinated much of the fundraising and repairs.

The easygoing Kuntz, 39, is credited with directing the town’s attentions away from loss and anger and toward healing, even opportunity. The unopposed mayor since he was 26, he helps run his family’s seed company at the end of Main Street.

Kuntz could’ve walked away from mayoral obligations in the wake of the disaster.

“To give up when my neighbors needed help the most? The thought never crossed my mind,” Kuntz said. “The leadership you provide in difficult times means there will be good times again in Harveyville.”

His Wildcats ball cap states his loyalty to Kansas State University, where Kuntz spent his only years outside this community.

But his loyalty to Harveyville runs even deeper.

“Look around. This town has replaced a lot of its old housing stock with new places. We have nice empty lots available at a very reasonable price,” he said, pointing out the twister’s path.

“You want a good place to raise a family? This is one heck of an opportunity.”

Strange target

It was an EF-2 and plowed in from the southwest, about 9 p.m.

Remarkable, people would say, that in a region defined by open pasture, this tornado would pick the heart of town to rake before vanishing.

Had the storm system traveled farther and damaged other places, the combined losses might have reached a dollar amount to qualify for FEMA assistance, federal officials told Kuntz.

As it happened, Harveyville was singled out for three minutes of mayhem.

A family of four embraced each other inside their trailer home as the structure twirled across Harveyville Road and exploded.

“By the grace of God, they’re still with us,” said Mayor Kuntz, pointing to their new home from the cab of his pickup.

Another resident, Lester Kimball, remembered sensing trouble while watching TV, as a crackling noise outside built to a roar. He made it four steps down into his basement when the house above him collapsed.

East of town, winds of 130 mph destroyed a barn but somehow lifted its occupant, a horse named Sakif, to safety. “He was deposited somewhere over there,” said Sakif’s owner, Ann Garner, riding him recently down Main Street.

“He’s 24, and real lucky to see that age,” she said.

The town’s most horrific hours that night unfolded at the home of Rick Slade.

Slade, 53, was headed downstairs when the building moved three feet off its foundation and landed on his midsection.

Volunteer firefighters who had assembled that day for a training meeting rushed to the house and tended to Slade while rescuers jacked up the building.

Some were his nephews, neighbors noted. When freed, Slade was airlifted to a hospital where he died the next day.

He was Harveyville’s only fatality. Several injured victims were either treated at the scene or spent short stays in the hospital.

Within hours

The Methodist pastor, Dennis Irwin, viewed the wreckage of his church and declared on the spot that the congregation would rebuild.

That was within hours of dawn breaking on the ravaged town.

“We realized our church really was about the congregation and not the structure,” he said recently.

The Methodists formed a building committee and held worship services on plastic chairs in the classroom of a former school. A Nebraska church had an old pulpit that it donated.

Within two days of climbing out of his basement unharmed, Kimball, 75, decided to rebuild where his old house had stood.

“People say tornadoes don’t hit the same place twice,” said Kimball. “I hope they’re right.”

Being denied federal recovery dollars, save for a Small Business Administration loan or two, “was kind of a stinker,” said resident Nikol Lohr. But Harveyville got plenty of help from others.

By the time the Northeast Kansas Incident Management Team transferred recovery operations to local officials, just days after the disaster, more than 1,000 volunteers had descended on the town.

About 150 private contractors moved in with donated labor and equipment to haul away debris and trim trees. Nonprofit groups kicked in relief funds, and Gov. Sam Brownback declared a state of emergency to the Wabaunsee County town, freeing up state resources for help as needed.

Nonprofits and community agencies pooled resources to form the Harveyville Area Rebuilding Team. It dispatched case workers to residents in need and launched a Web site to keep them informed of public assistance options.

And, with donated material, the town erected a memorial to the disaster — and a tribute to Slade — on a wall in City Hall’s tiny council chambers.

The United Way of the Flint Hills, which in 2011 coordinated relief efforts after a tornado ripped through Reading, Kan., said lessons learned from that disaster helped smooth the recovery for Harveyville.

“Most importantly, you learn you are working with people’s lives,” said executive director Reever. “There’s no reason someone has to jump through a million hoops just to fix a roof.”

Every day

Hardly a morning goes by when the coffee klatch at Riggin’s Market and Deli doesn’t recall the twister.

Debbie Roberts’ way of dealing with the town’s trauma — and the loss of a home she and her husband, Rich, shared for 42 years — was to interview every neighbor who was affected.

She compiled their accounts in a book, “Heart of Harveyville: Surviving the Tornado!” Roberts flipped through it in her new living room.

Each of the 45 chapters details the survival of one person or family.

“Of course, I already knew most of them, but I know them more personally now,” said Roberts, a retired schoolteacher. “I think their stories will be healing for the community.”

Her book is more about the lives that still populate Harveyville, not the stuff people lost.

“There it is — everybody’s stuff,” joked the mayor as his truck approached a large mound in an open field east of Main Street.

The area was designated a landfill in the days after the storm. And the stuff — broken furniture, window treatments, old books — was covered over with dirt already showing grass.

“When my grandchildren are growing up in Harveyville,” said Kuntz, who is certain they will, “this mound will be here to remind them what happened.”

And what happened, he said, had little to do with everybody’s stuff.

“Who knows? In 10 years we might look back at this event as a blessing,” the mayor said. “I’d say it already has strengthened us. It built trust in each other.”

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